Following a wild night in Atlanta, Hawks clinch playoff spot

It was one wild night at Philips Arena.

The Hawks won a dramatic victory over the Rockets by erasing an 18-point deficit Tuesday. The sold out crowd grew louder and louder during the remarkable fourth-quarter comeback. Josh Smith returned home and he and the Hawks faithful traded taunts during and after the game.

What more would you expect from this magical Hawks season?

Well, one more thing. The Hawks clinched a playoff spot in all the dramatics. After the locker rooms and arena had emptied, the NBA and Elias Sports Bureau concluded by a review of a lengthy number of scenarios and tie breakers that the Hawks were the first team in the NBA to clinch a postseason berth.

The Hawks (48-12) have the best record in the NBA and are 36 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history. They will be going to the postseason for the eighth consecutive year, the longest current streak in the Eastern Conference.

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“Staying dedicated to not allowing great to be stolen by good keeps us focused on doing something special this season,” DeMarre Carroll told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

With 22 games in the regular season, the Hawks are closing in on the franchise record of 57 wins in a season. Their magic numbers are now eight games to clinch the Southeast Division and 13 games to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East. The way the Hawks have played this season, the playoffs were a foregone conclusion. Now that they are in, the mindset won’t change.

“It’s great to know we will be playing in the playoffs again,” Kyle Korver told the AJC. “But I don’t think anyone has given clinching any thought. We are just sticking to our mantra. One day at a time.”

The Hawks’ opening round opponent is far from decided. Three games separate six teams vying for the final two spots in the East.

That is the future – but it’s worth revisiting the remarkable 104-96 win over the Rockets. Playing without the NBA’s leading scorer James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Rockets built an early lead as the Hawks were sloppy early committing nine first-quarter turnovers. Coach Mike Budenholzer said of the early start only “I did not like our focus.”

Budenholzer held an impromptu film session during halftime to drive that point home to his team.

The Hawks used a 32-9 run over the final 10:35 of the game to completely erase the deficit and record their NBA-leading 28th home victory.

Former Hawks Josh Smith, now with the Rockets after being released by the Pistons earlier this season, hit a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter. Despite praising the Hawks earlier in the day, Smith appeared to have enough of the sporadic booing he received. Following a timeout, Smith used one hand to raise a finger to his lips to hush the crowd. With the other hand he use three fingers to signify the 3-pointer that had become the bane of Hawks fans during his nine-year tenure in Atlanta.

The boos grew more intense. Smith would leave the game later in the final quarter after missing three shots, including two 3-pointers, and two turnovers. Following the game he joined the Thunder’s Kevin Durant in accusing the Atlanta fans of jumping on a bandwagon. Smith told ESPN, “I mean, those fans are fickle, very fickle and bandwagoners.”

At least one of Smith’s former teammates appreciated the crowd’s response.

“I think guys like playing when it’s emotional,” Jeff Teague said. “Josh (hushing) the crowd. That is fun. … I knew he was going to do something like that. They were booing him all night. He is a good player. I’m glad they responded the way they did (after hushing incident). It was fun. He did a lot of great things for this franchise but he’s gone now. They wanted to let him know he’s not welcome here anymore.”

The atmosphere at Philips Arena only figures to get more intense. LeBron James and the Cavaliers visit in Friday. And of course, during the third week in April, the postseason returns to Atlanta.

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